My house has been a revolving door of Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and Behavior Therapists over the past seven years. Both of my boys have autism, and beginning at two years of age, both had an intensive therapy schedule. The bulk of our therapy was (and still is) Applied Behavior Analysis, ABA. The first time I heard of this intervention, I was scared. I had no family members or friends who could help guide me, and most things I read on the internet terrified me. The phrase, ‘Early intervention’ was always accompanied with the additional description of intensive, which instantly made me feel sick to my stomach. Most things I read online were vague and compromised mostly of extremely technical jargon. I was completely lost.

I never thought a kidless 20-something year old might be able to teach me something about my own child. The presence of autism in my life has grown my mind a thousand times over. I am no longer afraid ABA. It is a huge part of our life, and one we couldn’t live without. Simply put, ABA is based on the science of learning and behavior. This science includes general laws about how behavior works for all of us- and how learning takes place. ABA therapy applies these laws in a way that helps to increase useful or desired behaviors. ABA also applies these laws to help reduce behaviors that may interfere with learning or behaviors that may be harmful.

So much of parenting children with autism is counterintuitive. I say and do things I never thought would work, but they do. The first most important topic I learned to help my two sons with autism, are the Functions of Behavior. The WHY they are engaging in a behavior. Beyond, that knowledge, here is a small list of techniques I learned from our therapists that we use daily that help reduce outbursts, increase understanding, direction following and happiness (theirs and mine). There is no one thing that works for all children, and there is no one quick fix, however, many of these techniques will work for many children. Whether they have autism or not.

Parker is 7, and Greyson is 9

1) Use Time to Decrease Transitional Tantrums
Many children have trouble leaving preferred places and activities. This is a BIG ONE for us. There were times I wouldn’t even take Greyson to our neighborhood park because I was so scared of that awful moment when we had to leave. Sometimes he would scream and fall to the ground, or try to run into a busy street to get away from me, or lash out to hit me. It broke my heart and downright scared me.

One thing that has been life-changing for us is using Minute Warnings/Timers: Your child may need a 5 minute, 2 minute, or 1 minute warning before there is a change of activity. These warnings help the children prepare for the transition. They will begin to learn that the warning comes and then the change comes. Eventually, the minute warnings become routine, even if the next task is not routine or preferred.

We set a timer on our iPhone. I’m obsessed with the Time Timer app because visually, it’s something familiar to my boys and used across multiple settings.

“In five minutes you need to take a bath.”
“In two minutes we are leaving the park.”

This helps a child feel more in control without the adult feeling out of control. When the timer goes off you have to carry through. We started this when Greyson was two years old. It took several weeks for him to understand. Now seven years later, it still works. Set your boundaries, stick to them, and follow through.

2) First/Then
Many of my boys frustrations are over wanting something they can’t have at that moment. A toy, a snack, a trip somewhere RIGHT NOW. Or there is something they DON’T want to do. For many of these situations we use first/then.  “First___, then____” statements are used to help a child finish a task before getting something preferred.

“First we finish our lunch, then we can go outside.”
“First we will clean up, then we can go to the park.”

Depending on your needs and your child’s skill set, you can either do this verbally, use pictures, or write items on a dry erase board.

In ABA land, this is also called the Premack Principle. This is a principle of operant conditioning originally identified by David Premack in 1965. According to this principle, some behavior that happens reliably (or without interference by a researcher), can be used as a reinforcer for a behavior that occurs less reliably.

It’s a simple phrase that provides structure in a child’s mind and helps them follow the directions at hand. It can help decrease a child’s frustration because they can understand exactly what is expected of them. It probably took about two months for Greyson to understand that he would get what he wanted as long as he FIRST did what was asked of him. At first he couldn’t grasp anything other than he’s NOT getting what he wants RIGHT NOW. Now it works like hot cakes, and my boys even First/Then me and it makes me laugh every time.

3) Reward positive behavior
Reinforcing language identifies and affirms childrens specific positive actions and encourages them to continue their appropriate behavior. For example, to a child that shared their swing at the park you might say, “I really like how you shared the swing with that little boy at the park.” It’s especially important to recognize behaviors that a child usually struggles with- sharing, being quiet, following directions- whatever their trigger might be. With these words, the adult lets the children know that their positive behaviors were noticed. Catch them being good, and be very specific about the behavior they are being praised for. “Great job buddy,” could be- “Great job putting the blocks back in the bin!”


We continually point out good behaviors in areas the boys struggle. “I like how you are sharing your truck with Parker.” “Good job cleaning up your blocks Parker.” “I like that you put your clothes in the hamper.” “Good job smelling the flowers!” (You know, instead of ripping them out of the ground and throwing them!) Recognizing good behaviors increases the likelihood that they will happen again. (Please note: this also works with husbands). In an environment with small children you are frequently saying: No, put that down, don’t do that, put that back, you can’t have that, you can’t eat that, give that back, sit down, stand up, try again, NO NO NO NO–  sometimes it’s so nice to recognize and focus on the good. For me, praise is one of the best reinforcers around.

For some children- praise means nothing. It’s not rewarding, therefore, it does not increase the good behavior.  In this case you must find something that IS rewarding. Sometimes a small reward is offered a piece of candy or a token or sticker that when accumulated can be used towards a greater reward. I’ve heard some people say, “I don’t like to bribe my child.” To me- it’s like getting a pay check for work. We all work for the reward, whether it be emotional, financial or edible or tangible.

4) Focus on what you want the child to do, not what you want them to STOP doing.
This one really perplexed me at first- Minimize the use of ‘don’t’ and ‘stop.’ For example, ‘Walk on the sidewalk’ can be much more effective than ‘Don’t walk on the grass’ for a child who might not hear the ‘don’t’—or for one who isn’t sure where the acceptable place to walk might be. This lets the child know exactly what you WANT them to do. ‘Stop screaming’ becomes, ‘Quiet please’, ‘Don’t color on the table’ becomes ‘Only color on the paper’. It’s counter-intuitive to the ways most of us usually redirect but it works. My son Parker often engages in attention seeking behavior just to be corrected. I know when he’s been around adults that don’t do ABA because he will engage in a behavior (like throw his toy for his example), and then instantly say- “No throwing! We do not throw.” In this case, instead, we ignore the unwanted behavior but not the child. We then praise when he engages in a more desirable activity.

5) Remain Calm (YOU!)
This was a hard one for me to learn and is still a hard one for me to remember sometimes! This one is especially hard because what usually happens is your child goes out of control and then you quickly follow. It’s exhausting, draining and frustrating. I take deep breaths and make sure my words sound calm, even if I’m not feeling it. I repeat to myself- Don’t match their energy, don’t engage in verbal debate. Do not offer long excuses or go on a rant. If your child is frustrated, chances are more language will just make them more frustrated. When a person with autism experiences too much sensory stimulation, their central nervous system is overwhelmed and unable to process all of the input- so the less input you offer- the better.

I remind myself that I am the adult and if I expect my child to change something in regards to their behavior then I must too. Children don’t always have the language to explain what they want and need and that can be extremely frustrating for them. I have had many, many more years of practice so I need to be much better at being calm and patient while I lead by example.

I can’t believe how much happier Greyson and Parker are since beginning Behavior Therapy. They are so much less frustrated, so much safer and so much more understood. Sometimes all that is standing between you and a child’s happiness is a little extra structure and support. These tips might be just the things you both need.

Chrissy Kelly

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